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Experts Call for Complete Overhaul of NY Region’s Transportation Agencies

At the Regional Plan Association Assembly today, a panel of experts with background in the U.S. and abroad offered a number of ideas on how the New York metro region could reform its ailing transport system. Most of the recommendations would mean a top-to-bottom overhaul of the way projects are planned, financed, and executed — and a shakeup of the entities that call the shots.

Politicians are major contributors to transportation dysfunction, but they’re not the only problem, experts said today. Photo: Brad Aaron

Politicians are major contributors to transportation dysfunction, but they’re not the only problem, experts said today. Photo: Brad Aaron

Speaking to a capacity crowd in a banquet room at the Waldorf Astoria in Midtown, panel moderator and RPA Executive Vice President Juliette Michaelson listed the primary causes of dysfunction in regional transportation planning: lack of investment; poor coordination among agencies; slow pace of innovation; costs that are out of line with other cities; and governing authorities that serve politicians, rather than the public.

“What we have here today is simply not going to cut it” if New York is to accommodate growth and remain competitive in the coming decades, Michaelson said.

Previewing the RPA’s fourth regional plan, to be released next year, Michaelson laid out some preliminary proposals for reforming regional transit. One of the RPA’s ideas is to merge the MTA, NJ Transit, and PATH into a “super agency” — though Michaelson noted that a merger likely wouldn’t fix problems caused by bureaucracy, high project costs, or political interference.

Another RPA proposal involves the creation of a financing and planning authority, similar to those in London and Stockholm, to contract out operations across the region. A third recommendation would consolidate existing agencies into a publicly-traded company, like Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation, with the government as the majority shareholder.

The latter two proposals would use public-private partnerships to build and operate projects, with the goal of generating a return on investment. This would help reduce costs and keep politics out of the mix, said Michaelson, though the challenge would be to “keep the ‘public’ in public transportation.”

New York should be thinking in terms of wiping the slate clean, said Rohit Aggarwala, a former Bloomberg administration official and one of the authors of the RPA’s new regional plan. “The current system can not be put back together again,” Aggarwala said. “You could put gods and angels [in charge], and you could flood the place with money. You would still have these problems.”

Read more…

Streetsblog USA
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How Good Is the Transit Where You Live? Measure It With AllTransit

transitrank

The top ten rankings are great conversation fodder, but the real strength of AllTransit is its deep reservoir of data, enabling multifaceted analysis of transit quality at many different scales. Table via AllTransit.

Do you have the sense that transit in your city could be a lot better, and you want to show your local elected officials what needs to improve? Look no further: Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology has produced a new tool called AllTransit that assesses the quality of transit down to the neighborhood level.

AllTransit lets you evaluate your local transit system in several ways. You can look up how many people in your city live within a half mile of transit service, for instance, or how many jobs are conveniently accessible via transit from your neighborhood compared to your city as a whole.

The tool combines route and schedule information from 805 American transit agencies with a wealth of Census data, making a broad spectrum of uses possible. With AllTransit, you can compare different facets of transit service across neighborhoods, cities, regions, states, or electoral districts.

To help people summarize complex comparisons, AllTransit offers an overall “performance score” incorporating several factors, including the extent of frequent service and how well transit connects people’s homes to jobs and other destinations.

The emphasis on frequency is unprecedented, said Linda Young, director of research for CNT. “Frequency is so important because it’s really the determinant of how people are going to use transit,” she said.

Here are a few ways you can use the tool, with Madison, Wisconsin serving as an example. Keep in mind that this is by no means a comprehensive list. Below are the city’s performance score and top-level stats — click to enlarge.

Read more…

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Two “New Yorkers” Debated in Brooklyn and Transit Barely Got a Mention

Image: CNN

Image: CNN

Remember that time two Democratic presidential candidates had a nationally-televised debate in New York City and barely said anything about transit?

This week Bernie Sanders was endorsed by the Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Hillary Clinton, speaking in Manhattan, called transportation — referring to transit specifically — a “civil rights issue.” So you’d think the time had finally come for transit policy, and the millions of Americans who rely on buses and trains, to get some attention on the national stage.

But last night, transit policy got but a fleeting mention. When the topic of climate change came up, Sanders said the U.S. could create jobs by “rebuilding our rail system … our mass transit system.” That was it.

Nationally, the Democratic base is heavily concentrated in urban areas, and right now the candidates are vying for votes in the state with far and away the most transit riders. And yet there was no acknowledgment on stage of how transit can strengthen cities or reduce economic inequality, the dominant theme of the campaign.

Then again, when one candidate can’t swipe a MetroCard and the other apparently doesn’t know what a MetroCard is, it’s little wonder two “New Yorkers” would fail to say anything of substance about transit.

Streetsblog USA
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A New Blueprint for Streets That Put Transit Front and Center

This template shows how transit could be prioritized on a wide suburban-style arterial. Image: NACTO

A template for transit-only lanes and floating bus stops on a wide street with parking-protected bike lanes. Image: NACTO

The National Association of City Transportation Officials has released a new design guide to help cities prioritize transit on their streets.

How can cities integrate bus rapid transit with protected bike lanes? How can bus stops be improved and the boarding process sped up? How should traffic signals be optimized to prioritize buses? The Transit Street Design Guide goes into greater detail on these questions than NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide, released in 2013.

Before the publication of this guide, city transportation officials looking to make streets work better for transit still had to hunt through a few different manuals, said NACTO’s Matthew Roe.

“The kinds of problems that the guide seeks to solve are exactly the kinds of design problems and questions that cities are trying to solve,” said Roe. “How do you get transit to get where it’s going quicker, without degrading the pedestrian environment? Some of that has to do with the details of design.”

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Streetsblog USA
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The Fight for Better Access to Jobs in Detroit and Milwaukee, Using Buses

Low-income residents of Detroit and Milwaukee face formidable obstacles to job access. These two Rust Belt regions are consistently ranked among the most segregated in the country, and neither has a good transit system.

Bus riders in Detroit. Photo: Ditched by DDOT

Bus riders in Detroit. Photo: Ditched By DDOT

In both regions, the places that have been growing and adding jobs fastest have been been overwhelmingly sprawling, suburban areas inaccessible to people without cars.

A 2013 Brookings study ranked Detroit number one in the U.S. in job sprawl. According to that report, 77 percent of the region’s jobs are at least 10 miles outside of downtown. The national average is 43 percent.

Detroit’s woeful job access issues were perhaps best illustrated by James Robertson, a factory worker who commutes to a suburb that “opted out” of the regional transit system. Robertson’s brutal commute went viral, and while it was extreme even for Detroit, it highlighted a disjointed transit network that limits opportunity for many other residents.

Milwaukee faces a similar set of problems. As of December 2014, Milwaukee County had only regained 35 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, while outlying counties had regained 70 percent, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis. A 2013 study by Public Policy Forum found that about a third of the region’s 29 major job centers were inaccessible by transit. A local civil rights group recently prevailed in a suit against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for its continued prioritization of costly highway projects at the expense of vital transit connections.

Now, both Detroit and Milwaukee are considering similar measures to improve job access: high-quality bus service that will connect workers from the city to suburban job centers.

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StreetFilms
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High Frequency: Why Houston Is Back on the Bus

Every so often, every city should do a “system reimagining” of its bus network like Houston METRO did.

Back in 2012, Houston’s bus network was in trouble. Ridership was down, and weekend ridership was especially weak. Frequent service was rare. Routes didn’t go directly where people needed to go. If you wanted to get from one place outside downtown to another place outside downtown, you still had to take a bus downtown and transfer.

It was a system that had basically stayed frozen since the 1970s. And as you can surmise, the service it provided was not effective, convenient, or appealing for many types of trips.

METRO’s solution was to wipe the slate clean. What would Houston’s bus network look like if you designed it from scratch? By re-examining every bus route in the city, talking to bus riders, and making tough decisions, METRO reinvented its bus network. The new system features better, more efficient routes, shorter wait times, and increased service on nights and weekends. The changes were essentially revenue-neutral — Houston now runs a better bus system on the same budget, because it optimized the use of existing resources.

This Streetfilm was produced in partnership with TransitCenter, the first in a series of four films looking at transit innovation in American cities.

Streetsblog USA
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Explore National Transportation Change Trends by Age Group

Cross-posted from City Observatory

In some ways, the urban renaissance of the last decade or two has been quite dramatic. Downtown or downtown-adjacent neighborhoods in cities around the country have seen rapid investments, demographic change, and growth in amenities and jobs. Even mayors in places with a reputation for car dependence, like Nashville and Indianapolis, are pushing for big investments in urban public transit.

Because many of those who work in urban planning live in or near these walkable, transit-served neighborhoods, it may be easy to imagine that their changes are representative of the overall pace of transition to a more urban-centric nation. Butas we and others have discussed before, in at least one way — transportation — change has actually been excruciatingly slow at the national level.

According to the American Community Survey, from 2006 to 2014, the proportion of people using a car to get to work declined — from 86.72 percent to 85.70 percent. Even among young people, the shift seems underwhelming: from 85.00 percent to 83.94 percent. (Though, as we stressed last week, these Census data only cover journey-to-work trips and tend to overstate the extent to which households rely exclusively on cars for their transportation needs.)

The changes for transit, biking, and walking are, obviously, similarly small. Transit mode share increased from 4.83 percent to 5.21 percent; among those 20 to 24, the increase was 5.53 to 6.35 percent. The overall share of walking commutes actually fell.

In fact, we’ve built a little tool to let people explore these data in an interactive way, selecting mode type and age ranges to see how things have changed, and haven’t, over the last almost-decade. The tool displays the same data in two ways: first, as a graph (above), and then as a simple table (below), for those who find that easier to read. (On the graph, yes, we have allowed the y-axis to begin at numbers larger than zero — in large part because the changes are so small that a chart that began at zero would be unintelligible. We will trust our readers to be sophisticated enough at reading graphs to understand.)

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Here’s the Risk to Straphangers of Kicking the Can on the MTA Capital Plan

Rumors are swirling that the long-awaited answer to the key question vexing the MTA — how the state’s $8.3 billion share of the unfunded portion of the MTA capital plan will be paid for — is that dreaded four-letter word: D-E-B-T.

According to the terms of a deal reached by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio in October, any additional debt should not be backed by MTA fares. But that deal could unravel — now, or in the future, when Cuomo is out of office.

What is the risk to straphangers if the deal implodes? I took a shot at calculating the answer, using my Balanced Transportation Analyzer model (Excel file).

The bottom line is that if the October agreement doesn’t hold up, financing the entire $8.3 billion “on the backs of transit users” would raise fares around 22-23 cents per ride. That would equate to an average 12 percent fare hike on top of the current average fare of $1.92. (That figure takes into account unlimiteds, free transfers, senior discounts, etc. and thus is well below the nominal $2.75 single-ride rate.)

The current 30-day unlimited price of $116.50 would rise by $14.00, shooting to $130.50, with the annualized increase of $168 surpassing the $149 cost of a Citi Bike membership. And the increase would be on top of the 4 percent biennial fare hikes the MTA has programmed indefinitely to cover rising operations costs.

As harsh as that would be, it’s a mere half of the impact I estimated here last May, before the MTA trimmed both the scope and cost of its 2015-2019 capital plan and before Governor Cuomo offloaded $2.5 billion in financing obligations onto Mayor de Blasio, reducing the state’s unfunded commitment to $8.3 billion.

On the other hand, holding the hit to 12 percent assumes favorable financing, notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s boost in interest rates last month as well as the potential strain on the state’s borrowing capacity from other infrastructure projects that the governor announced last week. Just a one point increase in the MTA’s borrowing rate, to 5 percent instead of the 4 percent I’ve assumed, would tack another three or four cents onto the required fare hike.

In addition to further impoverishing millions of low-income New Yorkers, a 12 percent increase in subway and bus fares would be projected to have these consequences, based on the BTA model:

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Streetsblog USA
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Ridership on the Upswing After Houston’s Bus Network Redesign

Houston's bus system before, on the left and after a complete system redesign on the right.

Houston’s bus map before and after a thorough system overhaul.

In August, Houston debuted its new bus network, reconfigured to increase frequent service, expand weekend hours, and improve access to jobs.

The implementation was contentious at times, and when we last checked in on the results — two months after the changes took effect — bus ridership was down 4 percent overall but up dramatically on weekends. That was to be expected, wrote transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who worked on the project, because it takes some time for people to adjust to changes and familiarize themselves with the new routes.

Now, after just two more months, METRO is reporting that bus ridership has climbed above previous levels. November totals were up 4 percent compared to the previous year.

“The upswing in ridership on the New Bus Network launched on Aug. 16, 2015 is immensely gratifying,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia in a press release. “The countless hours of researching routes, community meetings and input, planning changes, and redirecting and training our staff is paying off and we’re confident that trend will continue to grow.”

In October, Walker said he would expect ridership to increase about 20 percent by two years after the redesign, provided good management by the local transit agency. We’ll see, but the returns after just a few months are promising.

These results should be encouraging to cities like Columbus that are considering similar changes.

Metro is also getting ready to roll out a new transfer policy expected to boost ridership more. Previously, riders paying with cash did not get free transfers. Under the new policy, tickets will be good for a free transfer for up to three hours.

Streetsblog USA
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Civil Rights Groups Challenge Maryland Gov. Hogan’s Red Line Cancellation

Back in June, newly elected Maryland Governor Larry Hogan unilaterally cancelled a transit expansion project that Baltimore had been planning for a decade, transferring the state’s promised investment to road projects in more rural parts of the state.

Governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore's Red Line in June. Now civil rights groups are suing. Image: Railfanguides

Governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore’s Red Line in June. Now civil rights groups are challenging him. Image: Railfanguides

Now a coalition of civil rights groups is challenging the decision on civil rights grounds, saying it amounts to discrimination against Baltimore’s black residents. The Baltimore Sun reports that the Baltimore NAACP, the ACLU of Maryland, and the Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality (BRIDGE) will file a complaint against the governor with U.S. DOT under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hogan’s decision to cancel the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project came after months of evasiveness. The city had spent $230 million planning the 14-mile line and about $900 million in federal funding had been committed. Hogan has since proposed a $135 million system of busways as a substitute.

Legal challenges of this type are rare but not without precedent. The city of Milwaukee prevailed in a similar case in the 1990s, when governor Tommy Thompson cancelled a rail project in the city while proceeding with highway projects elsewhere. As a result of the case, the state was ordered to fund a transit project in the city. That agreement is the reason Milwaukee has been able to proceed with its streetcar plans without interference from Governor Scott “No Train” Walker.